Popular articles

Vladimir Orlov: “Russia and the United States should resume a comprehensive dialogue on global nuclear proliferation threats” image

On January 19, 2021, Dr. Vladimir A. Orlov, Director of the PIR Center, gave an interview to Security Index journal.


SECURITY INDEX: In your recent op-ed column, co-authored with Sergey Semenov and published by Kommersant Daily, you stated that “Russia and the United States, as major nuclear-weapo...

Heather A. Conley, Vladimir Orlov, Gen. Evgeny Buzhinsky, Cyrus Newlin, Sergey Semenov and Roksana Gabidullina
The Future of U.S.-Russian Arms Control: Principles of Engagement and New Approaches image

As one of its first security policy decisions, the Biden administration agreed to extend the New START Treaty for five years with no conditions.  The New START Treaty represents one of the last remaining vestiges of international arms control architecture and one of the few areas of potentially prod...

Nuclear energy in Saudi Arabia within Vision 2030 Program: Prospects for nuclear energy cooperation and nonproliferation risks image

Saudi Arabia is considered a nuclear “newcomer”. Although Saudi Arabia’s nuclear program dates back to the 1960s, the kingdom has demonstrated significant interest in nuclear energy only over the last decade. The Saudi interest in the peaceful use of nuclear energy is due to several reasons, among w...

All articles


Did you enjoy the article?


  • Position : Research Fellow
  • Affiliation : Odessa Center for Nonproliferation
complete list

WMD Terrorism Originated in North Caucasus: Again on the Agenda?


Recently it has become known that two prime suspects in committing the Boston Marathon bombings are two brother who had been identified as ethnic Chechens. On April 22, 2013 New York Times published an article[i] which noted that until a few days ago few Americans even knew what and where Chechnya was. But now Chechnya is in a focus of American scrutiny.

For Russia Chechen terrorism is a big problem which caused Russians much more concern than it caused Americans. Apart from waging a war against Russian state Chechen terrorist tried to get access to weapons of mass destruction and materials to produce them.

Permanent terrorist acts and WMD-threat had been a serious problem for Russian society during a long period of time. Eventually the scope of terrorist acts decreased and WMD threat was practically neutralized. But recent terrorist act in Boston again put forward a problem of Chechen terrorism. Taking into account numerous attempts of Chechen terrorist to get access to WMD we should recognize that a high attention should be paid to this problem. Terrorists don’t have a real opportunity to get access to Russian WMD, but this doesn’t mean that they lost an interest in acquiring the most dangerous of weapons. So we can’t exclude a threat of that terrorists would try to get access to WMD and related materials in countries which have problems with providing security to them.


North Caucasus WMD-terrorism threat: historical context


At the moment of declaration of independence of Chechnya in 1991 there were a number of facilities on the territory of the republic that contained radiological materials. The primary source for acquiring those materials would have been a radiological waste repository located 30 km north of the Chechen capital Groznyy, named Groznyy Special Combine Radon (“the Groznyy Radon”).

This facility included underground storage facilities for solid wastes with capacity of 1200 cubic meters each, a surface storage facility with a 900 cubic meters capacity, two facilities for liquid waste with a 400 cubic meters capacity each.

Besides Groznyy Radon, there were 26 facilities on the territory of Chechnya which had radioactive waste, including hospitals, industrial enterprises, labs, high schools, universities, and others, accounting for some 120 radioactive sources overall.

The Radon may have been used for radioactive waste disposal during 1993-1994 and 1997-1999 by the Chechens.

There were several cases of documented theft or diversion of radioactive containers. In 1998 Chechen law enforcement filed several cases on theft of radioactive sources, and the director of Grozny Radon said that several containers had been stolen from the territory of the repository.

In a 21 October 1995 interview Basayev said he possessed radioactive materials and that he could cause several “mini Chernobyl” and “turn Moscow into a desert”.

On 23 November 1995 a Russian television crew from the NTV network found a container with cesium-137 in a park in Moscow. The TV crew was tipped off about the location of the container by Basayev two weeks prior to the accident. The container, weighing approximately 15 kilograms, contained a radioactive source used in the oil industry.  The container emitted radiation, the exact level of which varies in different press reports from 30 to 700 times the normal level. The radioactive source was removed by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) and taken to a research institute for analysis.

In 1999 according to the press service of the Russian Defence Ministry, Chechen leader Salman Raduyev was preparing groups of saboteurs to be sent to attack Russian nuclear installations, including nuclear power plants. According to the press service, the groups consist of up to 15 persons and ‘will be made up mainly of Slavs’.

On 13 October 1999 a spokesman for the Federal Security Service said that his agency had “the same information as the Defense Ministry”. The FSB refused to speculate on exactly which nuclear facilities the Chechen groups could attack, but  Segodnya Newspaper suggested that the Ural region, in particular Chelyabinsk Oblast, with its several nuclear facilities, was a likely target.

In 2001 military counterspies have already prevented 4 attempts by terrorists to enter nuclear storehouses. The incidents happened in different parts of the country. In July and May 2001 security services of the nuclear storehouses captured several suspects. During questioning the “spies” said they didn’t follow orders by foreign special services, but by Chechens.

Two more Chechen subversive groups were interested in the transportation of nuclear ammunitions. These groups were seen at several big railway stations in the Moscow region. It seems, they were extremely interested in special trains for nuclear warheads transportation.

In 2002 Basayev’s people were looking for ways to the Kurchatov Institute. They also sought to capture several theatre-concert halls in Moscow. Chechen insurgents were planning to seize a nuclear reactor (there are several of them in the Institute) to blackmail the Russian authorities. The insurgents understood that any attempt of a capture of a nuclear reactor in Moscow would fail. However they did not leave their plans of nuclear blackmailing. According to the operative information of special services, the terrorist underground in Russia is looking for a way to warehouses with nuclear munitions.

In the same 2002 three armed Chechens were captured in Sverdlovsk region. The arms arsenal they had was impressive: Kalashnikov machine guns with silencer, two Makarov pistols, 8 grenades, plastic explosives (400 grams), detonators, remote control explosive devices. But the main “bomb” of the Chechens was a pass which gave access to the secret town of Lesnoy, where nuclear warheads were produced. The permit was issued on Roman Tasuhanov’s name. His father served in Lesnoy and his family lived there. When the family returned to Chechnya they didn’t give back the permit. To put it more precisely, the permit was not taken from the officer. It turned out that the permit would still be valid today.

On October 30, 2002 famous Chechen politician Akhmed Zakaev said: “Terrorist acts are possible. We cannot exclude that the next such group takes over some nuclear facility. The results may be catastrophic, not only for Russian society and for Chechen society, but for the whole of Europe.”

The information presented by Tver special service officers confirmed Zakaev’s words. In December 2002 FSB officers detained a captain of security regiment of the Kalininskaya nuclear power plant, which could have become a terrorist target. Having searched the suspect, the officers found a plan of the station indicating secret objects and ciphered telephone numbers.

The FSB officers found out the telephone numbers subscribers were citizens of the Chechen Republic.

In 2003 during the operation in the Gudermes region of Chechnya conducted by Russian special forces, a group of terrorists was destroyed. One of the killed terrorists was carrying a manual on the hand-making of poison-gas, including ricin. Ricin is considered to be the most powerful toxin:  its fatal dose is 80 times less than the fatal dose of cyanide.



During World Conference on Bio-terrorism in Lyon, 1st March 2005  French Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin said: “Several al-Qaeda cells have been trained in Afghanistan where they have learned to use biological agents including anthrax, ricin and botulism toxins. Later, after the fall of the Taliban regime, those groups continued their experiments in the Pankisi Gorge, on the territory of Georgia, bordering Chechnya.”


 WMD-terrorism originated in North Caucasus: current situation and Russian countermeasures


From the Russian point of view “improving of nuclear materials’ protection, control and account (MPC&A) is of high importance for preventing nuclear terrorism”. Russia confirms that a reliable protection is provided to all nuclear materials on its territory, and therefore there are no vulnerable nuclear materials and facilities on Russian territory[ii].

Keeping in mind a danger of WMD-terrorism threats Russia takes part in a number of international conventions and initiatives. On July 15, 2006 Russia and USA established Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT). Russia and USA agreed on development of cooperation in countering nuclear terrorism[iii]. On September 27-28, 2012 the Sentinel-2012 international demonstration exercise was held in Moscow and Dmitrov to exchange experience in preventing the trafficking in nuclear materials and radiation sources.

According to PIR Center assessments in recent years a source of WMD-terrorism threat comes from South Asia, Central Asia and the Middle East, not from Russia[iv].

However according to PIR Center assessments a WMD-terrorism threat should not be underestimated[v]. While a threat of moving Russian nuclear weapons and materials to terrorists is minimized there is still a possibility that terrorists could use other countries for producing WMD which can be used against Russia. According to PIR Center exit poll 83, 4% of Russians believe WMD can be stolen by terrorists and used against Russian civilians. Only 11% of Russians don’t believe in such likelihood[vi].

The representatives of Russian special services confirm that Chechen terrorist can still seek for WMD or related materials. For example, according to Col. General Alexander Bortnikov, director of Russia’s Federal Security Service said: “We have information which indicates that terrorists are continuing to try to get access to nuclear materials as well as to biological and chemical components.” Terrorists “are increasingly active in ... their aspirations to acquire newest technologies and to gain access to elements of weapons of mass destruction[vii].”

So as a result of this report we can make two conclusions:


  1. today terrorists don’t have an opportunity to use Russian nuclear weapons and materials stockpiles for terroristic goals.
  2. on the other hand Chechen WMD-terrorism threat is still likely for Russia because of the following factors:

-         the Boston bombings demonstrated a possibility of effective trans border actions. Chechen terrorism like any other terrorist movement based on radical Islam enjoys support from Afghani and Pakistani terrorists. This opens great opportunities for committing terrorist acts in different countries including Russia.

-         Chechen terrorists’ activities on producing biological weapons in Georgia and their contacts with Pakistanis prove that they can use other countries (not Russia) for producing WMD

Boston bombings demonstrate that the special services efforts on neutralization of the possibility committing terrorist acts are not successful. If terrorist are capable of organizing attacks in the United States they would have an ability to commit such acts in Russia as well. Taking into account their attempts to get access to WMD we should recognize that the threat level is still rather high. International cooperation is the only way to solve this problem. GICNT is one of the effective examples.


[i] Schwirtz Michael. Struggle at Home Intrudes on Chechen Haven in America. The New York Times. April 22, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/22/us/chechens-in-us-feel-exposed-and-embarrassed.html?pagewanted=1&_r=0&ref=todayspaper

[ii] Memorandum of the Russian Federation on nuclear security. April 13, 2010.

[iii] Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism. Russian Foreign Ministry Affairs (in Russian)



[iv] Orlov Vladimir. Terrorism as a Modern Threat to Global Security: Conclusions for Russia and India (in Russian). Report of 5th Discussion Forum “Russia and India: Partnership in the Global Format” . Moscow, September 12, 2011. PIR Center website, http://pircenter.org/media/content/files/9/13508253890.pdf

[v] Orlov Vladimir. Modern Threats to International Nuclear Nonproliferation Regime (in Russian). Russian Institute for Strategic Studies. Moscow, 2011, http://pircenter.org/media/content/files/11/13650037500.pdf

[vi] White Paper “NPT-2010: Strengthening the Regime”. Р.7, http://pircenter.org/media/content/files/9/13568173780.pdf

[vii] CIS news summary, Itar-Tass, June 2, 2010.


PIR Center Report. April 26, 2013